Japan has long been a de facto member of the Western group of countries. Since World War II, it has been a full-fledged liberal democracy, respecting human rights. Japan’s national security has been substantially ensured by the US-Japan military alliance.
The past decade has seen a hardening of Japan’s security and defence posture. During the second term of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe—from 2012 to 2020—Japan led the West in defining the new era of competition with China. Indeed, Japan was well ahead of the US, which was still employing “strategic engagement” with China until the end of the Obama administration.
Japan’s geopolitical leadership in the Indo-Pacific
Former Prime Minister Abe’s administration undertook many initiatives in the security and defence realm. It secured a new interpretation of Japan’s pacifist constitution, such that Japan could henceforth engage in “collective self-defence,” allowing it to come to the aid of a close ally like the US under attack. Abe also advanced the concept of the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific”, to defend maritime space from Chinese hegemony. He promoted the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), involving Australia, India, Japan and the US, which now meets at the leader level.
In response to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, Japan launched the Partnership for Quality Infrastructure, and is now a more important investor in infrastructure in the ASEAN group of countries than China. And when President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks, Abe initiated a resuscitation of the deal, which came into force in 2018 as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). The global potential of the CPTPP has been highlighted by the recent agreement between the UK with Indo-Pacific partners to join the CPTPP.
Today, Japanese defence planners believe that Japan’s security environment is the worst of any time since World War II and one of the worst of any country in the world. It is surrounded by China, North Korea and Russia, as well as sitting next door to Taiwan, which is under threat of a Chinese invasion, while joint exercises by the Chinese and Russian militaries near Japan have become more frequent.
China’s military spending has now risen to five times that of Japan’s, while North Korea’s nuclear capabilities have expanded substantially. However, what has changed almost everything has been Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The notion that a land war could take place in the 21st century has delivered a great shock to Japan. If it is possible in Europe, it’s also possible in East Asia. All the more so now since President Xi Jinping is commencing his third five-year term. There is obvious concern that President Xi could make rash decisions, with tragic effects for the world, like President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
It was against this background that the Japanese government announced a new Defence Strategy.
Japan’s new Defence Strategy
In December 2022, the Japanese government under the leadership of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida took a giant step forward when it announced an unprecedented step-up in Japan’s security and defence strategy.
In Japan’s new National Security Strategy, China was the first time ever identified as “the greatest strategic challenge” facing Japan. North Korea was labelled “an even more grave and imminent threat to Japan’s national security than ever before”. The Strategy also reiterated Tokyo’s strong stance against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
It was also announced that traditionally pacifist Japan plans to double its defence spending, from 1% to 2% of GDP over the next five years. This will lift Japan from ninth to third among the world’s leading countries in terms of military spending. And Japan could become a normal military power for the first time in the post-war period. Japan will focus on long-range missiles that provide a “counterstrike” capability to pre-empt enemy attacks, by targeting military infrastructure inside the territory of an adversary like China.
But how will increased defence spending be paid for? It is always possible that Japan will fail to deliver on its promises, as governments frequently do. Thus, Japan may employ budgetary tricks to pump up the numbers. But Japan’s security situation is so dire that the government really must take its new Defence Strategy seriously. This means that increased defence spending will have to be financed by increased taxation or borrowing.
The government was planning to finance the rise in military spending by increasing taxation. But there are many political voices opposing this — all the more so given that tax hikes in the past have presaged economic recession. The alternative of using increased debt is equally unpalatable in this country with government debt at 260% of GDP, by far the highest of any advanced country. While in principle a resuscitation of the “Abenomics” economic reforms could boost the economy, there is little likelihood of Japan’s super-ageing society generating a stronger economy which can finance Japan’s increased security needs.
Tackling these thorny issues will require strong and effective leadership, like that demonstrated by former Prime Minister Abe, who was tragically assassinated in July 2022.
Japan’s chronic leadership challenge
Japan’s post-war politics have been characterised by occasional strong leaders, who stay in office for several years – prime ministers like Yasuhiro Nakasone (1982-87), Junichiro Koizumi (2001-06), Shinzo Abe (2012-20) – along with prime ministers who usually stay in office for a year or two who are known as “revolving-door” prime ministers. This has meant that the bureaucracy has usually played the leading role in governing the country.
But the many initiatives and strong leadership of the Abe and Koizumi administrations demonstrated the importance of leaders staying in office for a substantial period of time, and their having an important policy programme. Unfortunately, following Abe’s long term in office, Yoshihide Suga held the position of prime minister for just a little over one year. And after only one and half years in office, there is speculation that Prime Minister Kishida might become the next revolving door prime minister.
Before his assassination, former Prime Minister Abe, who led the biggest faction in the parliament (“National Diet”), was a great supporter of current Prime Minister Kishida. But following the passing of Shinzo Abe, his former faction is riddled with infighting and there is speculation that Kishida will not survive the year. Kishida comes from one of the Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP’s) smallest factions, which means that he needs the support of other factions.
Will Kishida be able to survive?
When the LDP, led by Kishida, comfortably won the October 2021 national elections, there was hope that Kishida’s government will have “three golden years” to govern the country. But a number of factors have conspired to undermine Kishida’s administration. First, there was Abe’s assassination which shed light on close connections between the LDP and the controversial Unification Church, and sparked a political scandal. Second, scandals have led to the replacement of four cabinet ministers in recent months. Third, some key LDP members, including some cabinet ministers, openly broke ranks with Kishida over his plan to raise taxes to cover the proposed increase in defence spending. Not surprisingly, the popularity of Kishida and his Cabinet fell to record low levels, although they have bounced back a little in recent months.
There are a number of factors that will bear on Kishida’s ability to survive and use his political capital effectively. A poor showing by the LDP in upcoming local elections in April could put pressure on Kishida. Against that, a successful G7 summit in his home constituency of Hiroshima Prefecture in May could give a much-needed fillip to his popularity. Further, while there are lots of mutterings about replacing Kishida, there is no obvious candidate to take his place. And the political opposition to the LDP remains very weak.
All things considered, it is very possible that Kishida remains in power until the next scheduled national election, although Japanese politics can be full of surprises. But it is even more important that he be a strong leader who is not afraid to use his political capital to make difficult decisions, rather than buckle to LDP infighting. Indeed, it is imperative that Japan strengthen its defence and security policies, as it faces adversaries like China, North Korea and Russia. And having an unpredictable ally in the form of the US, it is also imperative that Kishida continue Abe’s active diplomacy of courting other partners, notably India, Australia, Southeast Asia and Europe.
We can only hope that Japanese politicians can rise above their petty infighting and see the crucial importance of working together to tackle the crucial geopolitical challenges that Japan and the democratic world face. There is no guarantee that these hopes will be fulfilled.
John West is author of the recent book, “Asian Century … on a Knife-edge,” and executive director of the Asian Century Institute. He is also adjunct professor at Tokyo’s Sophia University and contributing editor at FDI-Intelligence, a Financial Times magazine. These positions follow a long career in international economics and relations, with major stints at the Australian Treasury where he was director of balance of payments, OECD (head of public affairs and director OECD Forum) and Asian Development Bank Institute (senior consultant for capacity building and training).